More and more folks are discovering Ryder Carroll’s Bullet Journal system, which gives a lot of freedom in a notebook style. Some, like me, have taken this system and freedom and essentially make it work for us week to week, day by day. This easily heads down the road of hand-lettering, where people want to add some flair to their headers or collection titles.
I’ve only taken a class or two on lettering – but my mom taught me about letters a long time ago and I’ve played around with it my whole life very casually. I’ve only been practicing seriously since May once I jumped into the rabbithole of Instagram, watching a few tutorials, practicing some drills, reading blogs and books… And through months of diligent practice, I’ve learned a thing or two. So I’ll offer a few of my own thoughts, then links to some other really awesome lettering teachers in the web space.
To start, here are some of my basics:
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Handlettering and Calligraphy
When you get started lettering, there are so many styles of lettering that I’ll start to cover here and in future blog posts. Firstly, there’s handlettering, faux-calligraphy, brush calligraphy, pointed pen calligraphy, and others.
Handlettering is quite different from calligraphy. You can read more on Chavelli’s blog, but essentially hand lettering is the composition and drawing of letters and words to form a cohesive work. Calligraphy and brush calligraphy, on the other hand, is a stylized writing with a brush or nib. Examples of amazing handlettering artists include Sean McCabe and Dan Lee (truly, amazing). I do some handlettering but won’t speak much to that in this post.
Pointed pen calligraphy is what you’ve gotten to know as the straight or oblique holder and the metal nib, characterized by flowing thick and thin strokes. There are so many different styles you can use – including the more classic styles like Copperplate or Spencerian script, as well as more loose flowing modern styles. I’ll be doing a post and video on this soon!
Today, I’ll talk about fake calligraphy and brush calligraphy.
Cursive and Faux Calligraphy
If you can write in cursive or some form of joined-up handwriting, you can fake calligraphy. If you need to brush up on your cursive skills, start with these tutorials and worksheets to get familiar with the entry and exit strokes and the anatomy of those letters. From there, you can fake calligraphy.
For basic faux calligraphy I seriously don’t have anything super fancy. Here are some of the things I use:
- Regular 20# printer paper
- A Rhodia grid pad
- A cork-back ruler
- Derwent Pencils as recommended by calligrapher Molly Suber Thorpe (6H for finer details, HB for general drawing, and 7B for thick dark shading)
- Some of my favorite pens – Pilot G2, Staedtler Fine liners, Faber Castell Artist Pens, any pen really!
- I am getting into pointed pen calligraphy, which involves some more supplies, but I’ll save that for another day!
With these supplies, here’s how you can create fake calligraphy.
I tried to show the progression of what you could do to fake calligraphy with your favorite gel or marker pen. First you write in a script or regular cursive, then start thickening the line whenever you would go DOWN. Then you fill it in – voila!
This is the affordable and VERY versatile option. You can use this technique to liven up everything from your notes to signs to labels with everything from pencil to pen to markers to paintbrushes.
From there, you may want to try brush calligraphy. I have done a lot of videos of my brush calligraphy on my Instagram (search for “#jchungwrites”) and usually with a brush pen. I tend to like this as a stepping stone to pointed pen calligraphy for a few reasons – it’s lower cost, requires much less special equipment and supplies, and doesn’t require as much work while writing – the pen is inked and ready to go, instead of dipping every few letters. Also, warning – highly addicting pen-habit MAY form…. not that I would know anything about that.
So where do you start? There are SO MANY PENS…. how to begin? I distinguish between brush pens in several ways:
- Stiffness of brush tips
- Size of the brush tip
- Brush material – aka, is it a real brush with bristles?
In general, stiffer and smaller brush tips are easier to start with because they are easier to maneuver and practice varying your pressure with. The larger and softer the brush, especially with real bristles, the harder it was for me to learn as a beginner.
I usually suggest the following pens for friends that are just learning. FYI: I spelled Fudenosuke wrong, my bad.
- Tombow Fudenosuke, hard tip: you will see so much love for this pen – classic black, its firm tip makes it easy to control your pressure for thick and thin strokes and is the perfect size for smaller work. One of my favorite pens for beginners – for better or worse, it only comes in black. I have gotten mine from Jetpens.com, Amazon, and Tombow for about $3-4 USD.
- Kuretake Zig CocoIro, extra fine (ink + pen body): this super fine pen has a hard tip that is actually a little less forgiving than the Tombow fude, but can make your thin strokes look INCREDIBLY hairline. You have to get used to varying the pressure on this pen, but once you do, the hairlines are RAZOR thin. Perfect for writing small. There are 9-10 different ink colors in this pen. You can get them at jetpens.com, Amazon, or locally at places like Wet Paint in St. Paul, MN for about $5-$6 USD for the pair.
- Pentel Sign/Touch Pen: this is similar to the Tombow Fude and a little softer. I find that you have to really lift to get the thick/thin contrast. A joy to write with because the ink flows smoothly, and comes in a bigger pack of colors. I’ve used these in SO many calligraphy videos. I like these for small to medium sized works. The Black Sign pen is available at Michael’s stores if you want to try it out pretty quickly – but MAKE SURE it’s the brush tip. Not that felt tip business. Jetpens, Amazon, and some local stores will have them for $3-$4. Blick has them online, but not necessarily at their store.
- Pilot Petit3: A small but mighty pen. These colors are fun and ‘neon-like’ with a similar tip to the Pentel Sign. The water-like ink seems to flow really quickly – the word “juicy” comes to mind. Good for medium and small works. Jetpens and Amazon.
- Tombow Dual Brush Pens: these are such beautiful pens, come in a ridiculous 92 color array, and can be used as pens, watercolor, or blended together for effect. As you can see, they are also huge. I have a hard time doing work that’s smaller than a half-page with these, but they fill pages beautifully. These are softer brushes and you need to have good pressure-control to get the thick and thin, so it takes practice. I personally think these are tough for beginners – but are SO MUCH FUN. If you buy them, you should know that they are often on sale. Tombow website, Amazon, and at various local shops like Blick (Minnesota folks, I’ve seen them at Anchor and Wet Paint) for $3.20.
So if you grab a few of these pens, know that it takes work to get used to, and to master the strokes. That is my overall advice – lots of practice. Slow down. It is one of the most meditative and relaxing practices for me.
A few key tips I’ve picked up, some inspired from incredible folks (that I’ll link down below!):
- Smoother paper is easier on your brush tips – fibrous paper slowly wears down on your tips and makes it harder to get the thin strokes. I’ve paid for this in many Tombow replacements.
- For your felt tip pens and bigger Tombow or Brushables, your angle matters. Do NOT write straight up and down to the paper – hold the pen at a 45 (ish) degree angle to the paper.
- Don’t worry about getting super thin strokes going up – just practice varying the pressure so you can see the difference between thick and thin.
- As you can read here, this hobby has taught me a lot – namely, you cannot skip practice.
- Each pen has a different feel – the pressure you use for downstrokes on one will not be how you need to press for another. You’ll get to know the feeling, I promise!
I stand on the shoulders of giants – the ones who have walked before me, and have really done work to teach people about this art. Here are some of my favorites: check out this post for a roundup of my favorite calligraphy, lettering, handwriting guides.
- Lindsey at Postman’s Knock. She breaks down everything into steps and has a huge archive of lettering lessons on her blog. She specializes in pointed pen calligraphy, but lessons are very applicable to brush lettering.
- Nina Tran. Another incredible pointed pen artist, she helps run the HandletteredABCs challenge and walks through the Copperplate and Spencerian scripts through breakdowns and drills. She’ll also broadcast live on Periscope and help you learn.
- Kei Haniya rounds out some pointed pen suggestions. She offers awesome tips on her Instagram and Periscopes – I could watch her and learn from her all day.
- Sharisse at Pieces Calligraphy. She is the brush lettering tutorial queen and has been doing this for a long time. She has informative blog posts on her page, but the real bread and butter for me was following her on Instagram, where she breaks everything down into strokes and helps you with the unsexy but very necessary calligraphy drills to help you hone your craft.
- Lefties, check out Lauren at RenmadeCalligraphy – she’s a fantastic lefty-calligrapher who has pulled tips for you
- Sean Wes. I consider Sean really advanced in his work, but he looks at the construction of letters on a very precise scale. If you’re interested in making your lettering your business, he’s your guy.
- Olivia at Random Olive. She runs the #brushletterpracticechallenge and shares a lot of awesome stuff
- Kara at boho.berry has just started offering a practice sheet for lettering for her whimsical style
- Kim at tinyrayofsunshine just created her Handwriting Guide if you are looking at how to get your handwriting practice on.
- Cindy at Llamas Love Lettering. She uses your everyday pens and shows you how to make magic with them step by step. She has awesome videos on YouTube that walk you through the steps, and has free worksheets on your blog to help you improve your handwriting.
Let me stress to you… nothing will replace the necessity of practice and hard work. No fancy pen, no matter how expensive it is, will magically make your handwriting neater (trust me, I’ve tried it). You have to do the drills, the slow practice, taking the time – it pays off. What you don’t see on these pages (and my own) is the many sheets of practice, the very unsexy drills, the bag full of recycled paper, and mess-ups to get the spacing and lines just right. And for that, I leave you with this:
Happy practice, y’all! Any other places where you learn lettering? Other questions you have? Let me know!
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